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© Steve Tanner

Review: Spillikin at the Old Fire Station

"A love story that warms me as much as that of Woody and Lol"; Sam Bennett writes
"It’s not overkill, it’s realistic"

I don’t recall ever associating robots with love. But after Pipeline Theatre’s Spillikin, my thinking has been rewired.

Lollipop sucking, punk wannabe and self-described “quitter” Sally falls for the fatherless, robot making intellectual that is Raymond. They end up marrying, with a Wimpy Bar reception.

Fast forward decades, knowing he is not long for the world having inherited the same illness that killed his dad, Raymond recreates himself as a robot – company for Sally as Alzheimer’s gradually claims her.

The performers have been given an incredibly crafted script by Jon Welch to communicate, but this is not to take away from the skill they all exhibit in doing so. Hannah Stephens and Judy Norman portray Young Sally and Old Sally respectively. They mirror each other often, in voice and movement. It’s not overkill, it’s realistic, and done sensitively and sophisticatedly enough for us to see elements of Young Sally live on in the older version.

Old Sally also tries to continue the sexuality she had at 19, moving flirtatiously and caressing Raymond’s robot as her dementia worsens. Judy Norman’s commitment makes for an embarrassing, even tragic, image – a confused, by now haggard, and ultimately undesirable figure in possession of the belief she’s as sexy as she once was.

As is frequently the way with works about upsetting things, this is a funny show. Old Sally’s regular citing of her carer’s “fat arms” (at one point likened by her to “big sausages”) and the harsh honesty of Young Raymond (Michael Tonkin-Jones), which becomes funnier when mixed with his awkwardness, both provide laugh-out-loud moments.

Another of these arrives courtesy of Hannah Stephens’ ability as a comic actor. Young Sally is telling Raymond of her recent split from her boyfriend – Raymond’s competitor, 30 years of age, called Conrad (“a wanker’s name” in Raymond’s eyes). Conrad, a teacher, has been caught “touching up one of his pupils,” Sally tells him, then adopting that facial expression – the false, “Oh dear me”, mouth manoeuvred down towards your shoulder expression reserved for when you get a parking fine or break the yolk when frying an egg. The character’s appliance of it to a case of molestation evokes more audience laughter, probably spurred on by the happiness we feel – as the door is now truly open for Raymond to win the girl he’s always loved.

Admittedly it isn’t the on-stage robot (created by Will Jackson) that is moving audience members during the play, it’s the humans who have been programmed to do that. Further, I’m not now going to seek the same emotional outpour I get watching Pride at supermarket self-checkout machines. But Jackson’s robot sits before the audience representing throughout a love story that warms me as much as that of Woody and Lol (This Is England) – during a polished, heartfelt and beautiful production well worth witnessing.

- Sam Bennett


Spillikin is at the Old Fire Station until 11th February.


Image © Steve Tanner


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